Analogy is traditionally regarded as one of the three main factors responsible for language change, along with sound change and borrowing. Whereas sound change is understood to be phonetically motivated and blind to structural patterns and semantic and functional relationships, analogy is licensed precisely by those patterns and relationships. In the Neogrammarian tradition, analogical change is regarded, at least largely, as a by-product of the normal operation (acquisition, representation, and use) of the mental grammar. Historical linguists commonly use proportional equations of the form A : B = C : X to represent analogical innovations, where A, B, and C are (sets of) word forms known to the innovator, who solves for X by discerning a formal relationship between A and B and then deductively arriving at a form that is related to C in the same way that B is related to A.
Along with the core type of analogical change captured by proportional equations, most historical linguists include a number of other phenomena under the analogy umbrella. Some of these, such as paradigm leveling—the reduction or elimination of stem alternations in paradigms—are arguably largely proportional, but others such as contamination and folk etymology seem to have less to do with the normal operation of the mental grammar and instead involve some kind of interference among the mental representations of phonetically or semantically similar forms.
The Neogrammarian approach to analogical change has been criticized and challenged on a variety of grounds, and a number of important scholars use the term “analogy” in a rather different sense, to refer to the role that phonological and/or semantic similarity play in the influence that forms exert on each other.
Dalmatian is an extinct group of Romance varieties spoken on the eastern Adriatic seaboard, best known from its Vegliote variety, spoken on the island of Krk (also called Veglia). Vegliote is principally represented by the linguistic testimony of its last speaker, Tuone Udaina, who died at the end of the 19th century. By the time Udaina’s Vegliote could be explored by linguists (principally by Matteo Bartoli), it seems that he had no longer actively spoken the language for decades, and his linguistic testimony is imperfect, in that it is influenced for example by the Venetan dialect that he habitually spoke. Nonetheless, his Vegliote reveals various distinctive and recurrent linguistic traits, notably in the domain of phonology (for example, pervasive and complex patterns of vowel diphthongization) and morphology (notably a general collapse of the general Romance inflexional system of tense and mood morphology, but also an unusual type of synthetic future form).
In the Early Modern English period (1500–1700), steps were taken toward Standard English, and this was also the time when Shakespeare wrote, but these perspectives are only part of the bigger picture. This chapter looks at Early Modern English as a variable and changing language not unlike English today. Standardization is found particularly in spelling, and new vocabulary was created as a result of the spread of English into various professional and occupational specializations. New research using digital corpora, dictionaries, and databases reveals the gradual nature of these processes. Ongoing developments were no less gradual in pronunciation, with processes such as the Great Vowel Shift, or in grammar, where many changes resulted in new means of expression and greater transparency. Word order was also subject to gradual change, becoming more fixed over time.
‘Folk etymology’ and ‘contamination’ each involve associative formal influences between words which have no ‘etymological’ (i.e., historical), connexion. From a morphological perspective, in folk etymology a word acquires at least some elements of the structure of some other, historically unrelated, word. The result often looks like a compound, of a word composed of other, independently existing, words. These are usually (but not necessarily) ‘compounds’ lacking in any semantic compositionality, which do not ‘make sense’: for example, French beaupré ‘bowsprit’, but apparently ‘beautiful meadow’, possibly derived from English bowsprit. Typically involved are relatively long, polysyllabic, words, characteristically belonging to erudite or exotic vocabulary, whose unfamiliarity is accommodated by speakers unfamiliar with the target word through replacement of portions of that word with more familiar words. Contamination differs from folk etymology both on the formal and on the semantic side, usually involving non-morphemic elements, and acting between words that are semantically linked: for example, Spanish nuera ‘daughter-in-law’, instead of etymologically expected **nora, apparently influenced by the vowel historically underlying suegra ‘mother-in-law’. While there is nothing uniquely Romance about these phenomena, Romance languages abound in them.
Grammaticalization is traditionally defined as the gradual process whereby a lexical item becomes a grammatical item (primary grammaticalization), which may be followed by further formal and semantic reduction (secondary grammaticalization). It is a composite change that may affect both phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic-pragmatic properties of a morpheme, and it is found in all the world’s languages. On the level of morphology, grammaticalization has been shown to have various effects, ranging from the loss of inflection in primary grammaticalization to the development of bound morphemes or new inflectional classes in secondary grammaticalization. Well-known examples include the development of future auxiliaries from motion verbs (e.g., English to be going to), and the development of the Romance inflection future (e.g., French chanter-ai ‘I sing’, chanter-as ‘you sing’, etc., from a verb meaning ‘to have’). Although lexical-grammatical change is overwhelmingly unidirectional, shifts in the reverse direction, called degrammaticalization, have also been shown to occur. Like grammaticalization, degrammaticalization is a composite change, which is characterized by an increase in phonological and semantic substance as well as in morphosyntactic autonomy. Accordingly, the effects on morphology are different from those in grammaticalization. In primary degrammaticalization new inflections may be acquired (e.g., the Welsh verb nôl ‘to fetch,’ from an adposition meaning ‘after’), and erstwhile bound morphemes may become free morphemes (e.g., English ish). As such effects are also found in other types of changes, degrammaticalization needs to be clearly delineated from those. For example, a shift from a minor to a major category (e.g., English ifs and buts) or the lexicalization of bound affixes (isms), likewise result in new inflections, but these are instantaneous changes, not gradual ones.
While in phonology Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) dialects preserved the phonological system of Old Indo-Aryan (OIA) virtually intact, their morphosyntax underwent far-reaching changes, which altered fundamentally the synthetic morphology of earlier Prākrits in the direction of the analytic typology of New Indo-Aryan (NIA). Speaking holistically, the “accusative alignment” of OIA (Vedic Sanskrit) was restructured as an “ergative alignment” in Western IA languages, and it is precisely during the Late MIA period (ca. 5th–12th centuries
(a) We shall start with the restructuring of the nominal case system in terms of the reduction of the number of cases from seven to four. This phonologically motivated process resulted ultimately in the rise of the binary distinction of the “absolutive” versus “oblique” case at the end of the MIA period). (b) The crucial role of animacy in the restructuring of the pronominal system and the rise of the “double-oblique” system in Ardha-Māgadhī and Western Apabhramśa will be explicated. (c) In the verbal system we witness complete remodeling of the aspectual system as a consequence of the loss of earlier synthetic forms expressing the perfective (Aorist) and “retrospective” (Perfect) aspect. Early Prākrits (Pāli) preserved their sigmatic Aorists (and the sigmatic Future) until late MIA centuries, while on the Iranian side the loss of the “sigmatic” aorist was accelerated in Middle Persian by the “weakening” of s > h > Ø. (d) The development and the establishment of “ergative alignment” at the end of the MIA period will be presented as a consequence of the above typological changes: the rise of the “absolutive” vs. “oblique” case system; the loss of the finite morphology of the perfective and retrospective aspect; and the recreation of the aspectual contrast of perfectivity by means of quasinominal (participial) forms. (e) Concurrently with the development toward the analyticity in grammatical aspect, we witness the evolution of lexical aspect (Aktionsart) ushering in the florescence of “serial” verbs in New Indo-Aryan.
On the whole, a contingency view of alignment considers the increase in ergativity as a by-product of the restoration of the OIA aspectual triad: Imperfective–Perfective–Perfect (in morphological terms Present–Aorist–Perfect). The NIA Perfective and Perfect are aligned ergatively, while their finite OIA ancestors (Aorist and Perfect) were aligned accusatively. Detailed linguistic analysis of Middle Indo-Aryan texts offers us a unique opportunity for a deeper comprehension of the formative period of the NIA state of affairs.
Linking elements occur in compound nouns and derivatives in the Indo-European languages as well as in many other languages of the world. They can be described as sound material or graphemes with or without a phonetic correspondence appearing between two parts of a word-formation product. Linking elements are meaningless per definition. However, in many cases the clear-cut distinction between them and other, meaningful elements (like inflectional or derivational affixes) is difficult. Here, a thorough examination is necessary.
Simple rules cannot describe the occurrence of linking elements. Instead, their distribution is fully erratic or at least complex, as different factors including the prosodic, morphological, or semantic properties of the word-formation components play a role and compete. The same holds for their productivity: their ability to appear in new word-formation products differs considerably and can range from strongly (prosodically, morphologically, or lexically) restricted to the virtual absence of any constraints.
Linking elements should be distinguished from singular, isolated insertions (cf. Spanish rousseau-n-iano) or extensions of one specific stem or affix (cf. ‑l- in French congo-l-ais, togo-l-ais, English Congo-l-ese, Togo-l-ese). As they link two parts of a word formation, they also differ from word-final elements attached to compounds like ‑(s)I in Turkish as in ana‑dil‑i (mother‑tongue‑i) ‘mother tongue’. Furthermore, they are also distinct from infixes, i.e., derivational affixes that are inserted into a root, as well as from confixes, which are for bound, but meaningful (lexical) morphemes.
Linking elements are attested in many Indo-European languages (Slavic, Romance, Germanic, Baltic languages, and Greek) as well as in other languages across the world. They seem to be more common in compounds than in derivatives. Additionally, some languages display different sets of linking elements in both compounds and derivatives. The linking inventories differ strongly even between closely related languages. For example, Frisian and Dutch, each of which has five different linking elements, share only two linking forms (‑s- and ‑e-).
In some languages, linking elements are homophonous to other (meaningful) elements, e.g., inflectional or derivational suffixes. This is mostly due to their historical development and to the degree of the dissociation from their sources. This makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish between linking elements and meaningful elements. In such cases (e.g., in German or Icelandic), formal and functional differences should be taken into account. It is also possible that the homophony with the inflectional markers is incidental and not a remnant of a historical development. Generally, linking elements can have different historical sources: primary suffixes (e.g., Lithuanian), case markers (e.g., many Germanic languages), derivational suffixes (e.g., Greek), prepositions (e.g., Sardinian and English). However, the historical development of many linking elements in many languages still require further research.
Depending on their distribution, linking elements can have different functions. Accordingly, the functions strongly differ from language to language. They can serve as compound markers (Greek), as “reopeners” of closed stems for further morphological processes (German), as markers of prosodically and/or morphologically complex first parts (many Germanic languages), as plural markers (Dutch and German), and as markers of genre (German).
Morphological change refers to change(s) in the structure of words. Since morphology is interrelated with phonology, syntax, and semantics, changes affecting the structure and properties of words should be seen as changes at the respective interfaces of grammar.
On a more abstract level, this point relates to linguistic theory. Looking at the history of morphological theory, mainly from a generative perspective, it becomes evident that despite a number of papers that have contributed to a better understanding of the role of morphology in grammar, both from a synchronic and diachronic point of view, it is still seen as a “Cinderella subject” today. So there is still a need for further research in this area.
Generally, the field of diachronic morphology has been dealing with the identification of the main types of change, their mechanisms as well as the causes of morphological change, the latter of which are traditionally categorized as internal and external change. Some authors take a more general view and state the locus of change can be seen in the transmission of grammar from one generation to the next (abductive change). Concerning the main types of change, we can say that many of them occur at the interfaces with morphology: changes on the phonology–morphology interface like i-mutation, changes on the syntax–morphology interface like the rise of inflectional morphology, and changes on the semantics–morphology like the rise of derivational suffixes. Examples from the history of English (which in this article are sometimes complemented with examples from German and the Romance languages) illustrate that sometimes changes indeed cross component boundaries, at least once (the history of the linking-s in German has even become a prosodic phenomenon). Apart from these interface phenomena, it is common lore to assume morphology-internal changes, analogy being the most prominent example.
A phenomenon regularly discussed in the context of morphological change is grammaticalization. Some authors have posed the question of whether such special types of change really exist or whether they are, after all, general processes of change that should be modeled in a general theory of linguistic change. Apart from this pressing question, further aspects that need to be addressed in the future are the modularity of grammar and the place of morphology.
Mark J. Alves
The languages of the Austroasiatic (AA) language family share a core set of derivational prefixes and infixes that are largely fossilized. Beyond these, there is a wide range of morphological features throughout these more than 160 languages. Of the 13 branches of AA, there is a geographically central concentration of branches with predominantly isolating morphology (Khmeric, Monic, Vietic, and Pearic), while geographically peripheral branches have more complex morphology (Aslian and Khasic), and some with inflectional morphology (Munda and Nicobaric). Other branches are typologically between, largely lacking inflectional morphology (i.e., systematic, productive grammatical morphology) but having a somewhat more complex range of morphological features (Katuic, Bahnaric, Palaungic, Khmuic, and Mangic), including those with some grammatical functions. Other than Munda and Nicobaric, most AA languages have iambic word-level stress and have only prefixes and infixes while lacking suffixes. This has resulted in a collapsing of older morphological material, while new affixes, with new morphosemantic functions, emerge. Alternating reduplication, in which complete prosodic templates are copied but various segments are alternated, is a common word-formation strategy and sometimes combines with prefixes and affixes. While lexical compounds are common, so are pseudo-compounds with near affix-like semantic, and sometimes phonological, features. Overall, while monomorphemic words are common among the more isolating types of AA languages, ample linguistic descriptions show a substantially wider range of morphological complexity throughout the AA language family.
Dene-Yeniseian is a putative family consisting of two branches: Yeniseian in central Siberia and Na-Dene (Tlingit-Eyak-Athabaskan) in northwestern North America. Yeniseian contains a single living representative, Ket, as well as the extinct Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol languages. Na-Dene contains Tlingit, spoken mainly in the Alaskan Panhandle, and a second branch divided equidistantly between the recently extinct Eyak language of coastal Alaska and the widespread Athabaskan subfamily, which originally contained more than 40 distinct languages, some now extinct. Athabaskan was once spoken throughout interior Alaska (Dena’ina, Koyukon) and most of northwestern Canada (Slave, Witsuwit’en, Tsuut’ina), with enclaves in California (Hupa), Oregon (Tolowa), Washington (Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie), and the American Southwest (Navajo, Apache). Both families are typologically unusual in having a strongly prefixing verb and nominal possessive prefixes, but postpositions rather than prepositions. The finite verb arose from the amalgamation of an auxiliary and a main verb, both with its own agreement prefixes and tense-mood-aspect suffixes, creating a rigid, mostly prefixing template. The word-final suffixes largely elided in Yeniseian but merged with the ancient verb root in Na-Dene to create a series of allophones called stem sets. Na-Dene innovated a unique complex of verb prefixes called “classifiers” on the basis of certain inherited agreement and tense-mood-aspect markers; all of these morphemes have cognates in Yeniseian, where they did not innovate into a single complex. Metathesis and reanalysis of old morphological material is quite prevalent in the most ancient core verb morphology of both families, while new prefixal or suffixal slots added onto the verb’s periphery represent innovations that distinguish the individual daughter branches within each family. Other shared Dene-Yeniseian morphology includes possessive constructions, directional words, and an intricate formula for deriving action nominals from finite verb stems.
Yeniseian languages have been strongly affected by the exclusively suffixing languages brought north to Siberia by reindeer breeders during the past two millennia. In modern Ket the originally prefixing verb has largely become suffixing, and possessive prefixes have evolved into clitics that prefer to attach to any available preceding word. Na-Dene languages were likewise influenced by traits prevalent across the Americas. Athabaskan, for example, developed a system of obviation in third-person agreement marking and elaborated an array of distinct verb forms reflecting the shape, animacy, number, or consistency of transitive object or intransitive subject. Features motivated by language contact differ between Tlingit, Eyak, and Athabaskan, suggesting they arose after the breakup of Na-Dene, as the various branches spread across northwestern North America.
The study of Dene-Yeniseian morphology contributes to historical-comparative linguistics, contact linguistics, and also to the diachronic study of complex morphology. In particular, comparing Yeniseian and Na-Dene verb structure reveals the prominence of metathesis and reanalysis in processes of language change. Dene-Yeniseian is noteworthy not only for its wide geographic spread and for the effects of language contact on each separate family, but also for the opportunity to trace the evolution of uncommon morphological structures.
Indo-European languages of the most archaic type, such as Old Indic and Ancient Greek, have rich fusional morphologies with predominant use of suffixation and ablaut as formal devices. The presence of cumulative inflectional morphs in final position is also a general IE feature.
A noteworthy property of the archaic IE morphological system is its root-based organization. This is well observable in Old Indo-Aryan, where the mental lexicon is largely made up of roots unspecified for word-class membership.
In the historical development of the different IE branches, recurrent phenomena are observed that lead to an increase in configurationality and a decrease in the degree of synthesis (use of adpositions at the expense of case forms, rise of auxiliaries and increasing employment of periphrastic morphology, creation of determiners). However, not all the documented developments can be subsumed under the rubric ‘morphological decay’: new synthetic verbal forms, which often coexist with the inherited ones, are often created via resynthesization of periphrases; new nominal case forms are sometimes created through univerbation of adpositional phrases; instances of prefixation recurrently arise from former compound structures consisting of adverb (‘preverb’) + verb.
The formation of inflectional paradigms with several mutually unpredictable subsections and of relatively complex systems of inflectional classes is also observed in various IE languages. The same holds for the rising of new patterns of morphophonological alternations, which often allow the preservation of several morphological oppositions even after the loss of inflectional endings. As a consequence, modern IE languages may exhibit higher degrees of fusionality, at least in specific morphological subsystems, than their diachronic foregoers.
In the various branches, the system of inflectional morphology could undergo several reshapings at the level of both the structure of grammatical categories and the formal organization of paradigms, sometimes with noteworthy typological changes. English poor morphology, Ossetic and New Armenian agglutinative nominal inflections, lack of verbal inflection of number, and presence of numeral classifiers in Eastern New Indo-Aryan varieties are among the examples of extreme departure from the ancient IE morphological type. A common development concerning word formation is the decline of the root-based organization of morphology.
The Dravidian languages are rich in nominal and verbal morphology. Three nominal gender systems are extant. Pronouns are gender-number marked demonstratives. Gender-number agreement in the DP suggests an incipient classifier system. Oblique cases are layered on a genitive stem; iterative genitive and plural marking is seen. Genitive and dative case mark possession/ experience (there is no verb have), and the adjectival use of property nouns.
Verbs inflect for agreement (in affirmative finite clauses), aspect, causativity, and benefactivity/ reflexivity. Light verbs are ubiquitous as aspect markers and predicate formatives, as are serial verbs. Variants of the quotative verb serve as complementizers and as topic and evidential particles. Disjunctive particles serve as question particles; conjunctive and disjunctive particles on question words derive quantifiers. Reduplication occurs in quantification and anaphor-formation.
Giorgio Francesco Arcodia and Bianca Basciano
Sino-Tibetan is a highly diverse language family, in which a wide range of morphological phenomena and profiles may be found. The family is generally seen as split into two major branches, i.e., Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman, but while Sinitic is a fairly homogeneous group in terms of morphology, the so-called Tibeto-Burman branch of the family includes isolating languages like Karen, languages with transparent and regular agglutinative morphology (Lolo-Burmese, Tibetic, and Boro-Garo), but also paradigmatically complex languages, with elaborate argument indexation and transitivity management systems; while in some languages morphological complexity is mostly a conservative trait (e.g., Rgyalrongic and Kiranti), other languages developed innovative paradigms, with only few vestiges of the archaic system (Kuki-Chin). Some notable morphological phenomena in modern Tibeto-Burman languages are verb stem alternation, peculiar nominalization constructions, and long sequences of prefixes, which in some languages (Chintang) may even be freely permutated without any relevant change in meaning.
Also, while Sinitic languages are normally taken to be a prototypical example of the (ideal) isolating morphological type (with virtually no inflection, stable morpheme boundaries, no cumulative exponence, and no allomorphy or suppletion), phenomena of strong reduction of morphemes, blurring of morpheme boundaries and fusion between root and suffix, and nonconcatenative morphology, as well as allomorphy and (proto-)paradigmatic organization of morphology, are attested in some Chinese dialects, mostly concentrated in an area of Northern China (Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, and Shandong provinces). Moreover, ‘Altaic-type’ agglutinative morphology, including case marking, is found in Sinitic languages of the so-called Qinghai-Gansu Sprachbund; in this case, the development of agglutination, as well as other typological traits (as SOV word order), is clearly the product of intense and prolonged contact between Northwestern Chinese dialects and Tibetic and Mongolic languages of China. On the other hand, Southern Chinese dialects have developed in closer contact with Hmong-Mien, Tai-Kadai, and Austroasiatic languages, and are thus closer to the typology of Mainland Southeast Asian languages, with a very strong isolating profile.
Old and Middle Japanese are the pre-modern periods of the attested history of the Japanese language. Old Japanese (OJ) is largely the language of the 8th century, with a modest, but still significant number of written sources, most of which is poetry. Middle Japanese is divided into two distinct periods, Early Middle Japanese (EMJ, 800–1200) and Late Middle Japanese (LMJ, 1200–1600). EMJ saw most of the significant sound changes that took place in the language, as well as profound influence from Chinese, whereas most grammatical changes took place between the end of EMJ and the end of LMJ. By the end of LMJ, the Japanese language had reached a form that is not significantly different from present-day Japanese.
OJ phonology was simple, both in terms of phoneme inventory and syllable structure, with a total of only 88 different syllables. In EMJ, the language became quantity sensitive, with the introduction of a long versus short syllables. OJ and EMJ had obligatory verb inflection for a number of modal and syntactic categories (including an important distinction between a conclusive and an (ad)nominalizing form), whereas the expression of aspect and tense was optional. Through late EMJ and LMJ this system changed completely to one without nominalizing inflection, but obligatory inflection for tense.
The morphological pronominal system of OJ was lost in EMJ, which developed a range of lexical and lexically based terms of speaker and hearer reference. OJ had a two-way (speaker–nonspeaker) demonstrative system, which in EMJ was replaced by a three-way (proximal–mesial–distal) system.
OJ had a system of differential object marking, based on specificity, as well as a word order rule that placed accusative marked objects before most subjects; both of these features were lost in EMJ. OJ and EMJ had genitive subject marking in subordinate clauses and in focused, interrogative and exclamative main clauses, but no case marking of subjects in declarative, optative, or imperative main clauses and no nominative marker. Through LMJ genitive subject marking was gradually circumscribed and a nominative case particle was acquired which could mark subjects in all types of clauses.
OJ had a well-developed system of complex predicates, in which two verbs jointly formed the predicate of a single clause, which is the source of the LMJ and NJ (Modern Japanese) verb–verb compound complex predicates. OJ and EMJ also had mono-clausal focus constructions that functionally were similar to clefts in English; these constructions were lost in LMJ.
An agent noun is a derived noun whose general meaning is ‘person who does . . .’. It is thus characterized by the feature [+ Human], regardless of whether the person involved actually performs an action (e.g., French nageur ‘swimmer’, i.e., ‘a person who swims’), carries out a profession (e.g., Spanish cabrero ‘goatherd’, i.e., ‘a person who looks after goats’), adheres to a certain ideology or group (e.g., Italian femminista ‘feminist’, i.e., ‘a person who supports or follows the feminist movement’), and so on. Agent nouns are for the most part denominal (as with cabrero and femminista above) and deverbal (as with nageur above). Latin denominal agent nouns were mainly formed with -arius, though the Latin agentive suffix par excellence was -tor, which derived nouns from verbs. Latin denominal agents were also formed with -ista, a borrowing from Greek -ιστήϛ. The reflexes of all three suffixes are widespread and highly productive in the Romance languages, as in the case of Portuguese/Spanish/Catalan/Occitan pescador ‘fisherman’ (-dor < -torem), French boucher ‘butcher’ (-er < -arium), and Romanian flautist (-ist < -ista). At any rate, the distinction between denominal and deverbal agent nouns is not always straightforward, as demonstrated by the Romance forms connected with the Latin present particle -nte, for whereas the majority display a verbal base (e.g., Italian cantante ‘singer’ ← cantare ‘to sing’), there are some which do not (e.g., Italian bracciante ‘hired hand’ ← braccio ‘arm’), thus allowing them to be regarded as denominal derivations. A minor group of agent nouns is made up of deadjectival derivations, often conveying a pejorative meaning; such is the case with Italian elegantone ‘person of overblown elegance’ (← elegante ‘elegant’) and French richard ‘very rich person’ (← riche ‘rich’).
Polysynthesis is informally understood as the packing of a large number of morphemes into single words, as in (1) from Bininj Gun-wok (Evans, in press).
'I cooked the wrong meat for them again.'
Its status as a distinct typological category into which some of the world’s languages fall, on a par with isolating, agglutinating, or fusional languages, has been controversial from the start. Nevertheless, researchers working with these languages are seldom in doubt as to their status as distinct from these other morphological types. This has been complicated by the fact that the speakers of such languages are largely limited to hunter-gatherers—or were so in the not too distant past—so the temptation is to link the phenomenon directly to way of life. This proves to be oversimplified, although it is certainly true that languages qualifying as polysynthetic are almost everywhere spoken in peripheral regions and are on the decline in the modern world—few children are learning them today.
Perhaps the most pervasive of the traits that give these languages the impression of a “special” status is that of holophrasis, which can be defined as the (possible) expression of what in less synthetic languages would be whole sentences in single complex (usually verbal) words. It turns out, however, that there is much greater variety among polysynthetic languages than is generally thought: there are few other traits that they all share, although distinct subtypes can in fact be distinguished, notably the affixing as opposed to the incorporating type.
These languages have considerable importance for the investigation of the diachronic complexification of languages in general and of language acquisition by children, as well as for theories of language universals. The sociolinguistic factors behind their development have only recently begun to be studied in depth. All polysynthetic languages today are to some degree endangered (they are dying off at an alarming rate), and many have been poorly studied if at all, which makes their investigation before it is too late a prime goal for linguistics.
Erich R. Round
The non–Pama-Nyugan, Tangkic languages were spoken until recently in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. The most extensively documented are Lardil, Kayardild, and Yukulta. Their phonology is notable for its opaque, word-final deletion rules and extensive word-internal sandhi processes. The morphology contains complex relationships between sets of forms and sets of functions, due in part to major historical refunctionalizations, which have converted case markers into markers of tense and complementization and verbal suffixes into case markers. Syntactic constituency is often marked by inflectional concord, resulting frequently in affix stacking. Yukulta in particular possesses a rich set of inflection-marking possibilities for core arguments, including detransitivized configurations and an inverse system. These relate in interesting ways historically to argument marking in Lardil and Kayardild. Subordinate clauses are marked for tense across most constituents other than the subject, and such tense marking is also found in main clauses in Lardil and Kayardild, which have lost the agreement and tense-marking second-position clitic of Yukulta. Under specific conditions of co-reference between matrix and subordinate arguments, and under certain discourse conditions, clauses may be marked, on all or almost all words, by complementization markers, in addition to inflection for case and tense.